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Buying Into the Dream

New homeowners on outsmarting the market, outhustling the competition, haggling for deals, scrounging for dollars, and getting flat-out lucky in the race for Bay Area real estate in 2017.


Have you heard? It's absolutely impossible to buy a home in the Bay Area. 

Except people keep buying homes in the Bay Area. And contrary to popular belief, these home buyers are not all monocle-wearing Monopoly men sporting Uber swag. Some of them are teachers, hairstylists, social workers, single people, families, people of color, immigrants…

How on earth are they pulling it off? I needed to know. And more important, I wanted everyone else to know. Because personally, I’m not a huge fan of hopeless narratives, and our city has a thing for those these days. So I asked them: How did you manage to purchase a home in the least-affordable region in the United States? And they told me. They told me how they had saved little by little until they had a nest egg big enough to hold a down payment, or how their parents had helpfully lent them a five- or six-figure pile at a cushy interest rate, or how they’d sold a company or invested in the stock market or bought a tiny condo 10 years ago, at just the right moment. They told me how much they’d bid and how much they’d paid and how much cash they’d put down and how there had always, always been someone with more money trying to outbid them. Their stories are all here. My story is here, too, as my family just moved in to our new home in the Outer Richmond.

But before we get too far into this, let’s just address something. Last month in this magazine, my colleagues profiled San Francisco residents addicted to injection drugs, most of them without stable places to live. A sentence about a woman who “was abandoned by her father in the Tenderloin when she was a child” has burrowed a permanent place into my brain and makes its disturbing presence known whenever I look at my four year-old daughter or my own dad, whom you will learn a lot more about in a minute.

That privilege thing everyone has been talking about? This story has got it in spades. After finishing these profiles, I went back and asked the subjects one last question: How many of them, while growing up, had lived in a home that their parents owned? Thirty out of 34. Whether their family actually aided them financially or not, nearly all of them grew up with the idea that homeownership is achievable; whether they remember it or not, they probably heard the word mortgage at the dinner table now and again.

“Anyone with sense will not talk to you about money.” That’s what a friend and keen real estate investor told me when I said that I was writing this piece. It’s the prevailing wisdom, and I respect it. But the unwillingness to discuss money—and where it comes from and how to get it—has created a knowledge divide. The people on one side have learned the meaning of all those annoying broker initialisms (SFH, APR, ARM, TIC, BMR, DALP, SBA, LOI) and are empowered to use them to their advantage. The people on the other side have not, and even their friends won’t explain them because, well, they’re complicated and boring and anyone with sense will not talk about money.

I was inspired to write this piece because my own homeownership is due, in part, to a handful of friends who did talk money to me. They broke things down in a way that I understood. Because hearing about how interest rates work from a close friend over spicy margaritas is way more digestible than sitting with a loan officer in a bank cubicle. (But don’t worry, I also interviewed an actual loan officer for this story, because my tipsy friend may have skipped over some important details.)

That is what I told people when I asked them to share their stories with me, and I am grateful that they did. I also promised them that I’d tell my story, too. So here goes.

The Family Business
Broker, Lawyer, Designer, Mom
To the Locals Go the Spoils
Tell a Story, and Make It Good
The Lottery Winners
Riding Out the Recession
The Soul (and House) Mates
Three Boys and a Dream
Not in Texas Anymore
A Reward for the Faithful
A Gift from Grandma
The Grateful Educators
Chasing the Dream
The Renter No Longer
The Data Optimizers
An Accidental Homeowner
The “Oh-S**t” Moment
All Aboard in the Marina


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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